Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger

by Lee Israel

Paperback, 2018



Call number

PN171 .F6


Simon & Schuster (2018), Edition: Media Tie-In, 144 pages


Now a major motion picture starring Melissa McCarthy--Lee Israel's hilarious and shocking memoir of the astonishing caper she carried on for almost two years when she forged and sold more than three hundred letters by such literary notables as Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Noel Coward, and many others. Before turning to her life of crime--running a one-woman forgery business out of a phone booth in a Greenwich Village bar and even dodging the FBI--Lee Israel had a legitimate career as an author of biographies. Her first book on Tallulah Bankhead was a New York Times bestseller, and her second, on the late journalist and reporter Dorothy Kilgallen, made a splash in the headlines. But by 1990, almost broke and desperate to hang onto her Upper West Side studio, Lee made a bold and irreversible career change: inspired by a letter she'd received once from Katharine Hepburn, and armed with her considerable skills as a researcher and celebrity biographer, she began to forge letters in the voices of literary greats. Between 1990 and 1991, she wrote more than three hundred letters in the voices of, among others, Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, Edna Ferber, Lillian Hellman, and Noel Coward--and sold the forgeries to memorabilia and autograph dealers. "Lee Israel is deft, funny, and eminently entertaining...[in her] gentle parable about the modern culture of fame, about those who worship it, those who strive for it, and those who trade in its relics" (The Associated Press). Exquisitely written, with reproductions of her marvelous forgeries, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is "a slender, sordid, and pretty damned fabulous book about her misadventures" (The New York Times Book Review).… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member laVermeer
It has now been several weeks since I read Can You Ever Forgive Me? and I continue to be outraged by this text. As an academic and a book editor, I am appalled at Lee Israel's despicable choices. She writes in a quirkily charming voice, but her subject matter should strike readers, writers, librarians, and scholars as utterly repugnant.

Lee Israel committed literary forgeries. She chose high-profile Modernist writers and falsified letters from her subjects by imitating their styles. She also altered documents from academic libraries by appending fabricated material to them. One might applaud her literary ventriloquism as an eccentric writing exercise; when she chose to sell her fabrications to dealers, however, she violated both moral and intellectual integrity.

There is certainly a social critique to launch against private collectors who wish to "invest" in cultural ephemera such as letters, and I feel limited sympathy for those who were duped by Lee Israel's schemes. However, these forgeries also have consequences for scholars trying to understand their subjects. Israel reports with glee that one of her false letters has been included in major edition of an author's collected letters. This is a terrible corruption, and Israel demonstrates no remorse for her actions.

What particularly irritates me about this text is that, in publishing a book about her forgeries, Lee Israel has been doubly rewarded for being a thief and a liar. Because of her actions, it is now even harder for legitimate scholars to do archival work. I am disgusted by Israel's shamelessness and disappointed that a major publisher would publicize her actions. I suppose the value in the text is that it serves as a warning. As for Lee Israel, well, she has to live with herself.
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LibraryThing member EmScape
No. No, I cannot. Not cool, Lee Israel.
Lee was poor so she faked correspondence between famous people and other people. She got caught and now she's poor again so she writes a memoir. She tries to pretend to be reformed and Sorry, but she's not and you can tell by how gleefully she relishes her tale and how super clever and talented she still thinks she is. Ick.… (more)
LibraryThing member akblanchard
Down-on-her-luck celebrity biographer Lee Israel came up with a money making scheme that both stretched her creativity and got her in trouble with the FBI. Using both her literary gifts and her research skills, she forged autographed letters supposedly written by twentieth century luminaries such as Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, and Noel Coward, and sold them to brokers, who in turn sold them to collectors. Two of her Noel Coward forgeries even ended up in a book of the composer's collected correspondence. As her involvement in her crimes deepened, she even stole materials from archives and academic libraries.

Eventually Israel had to face the music, but I don't have the impression that her conscience bothered her very much. She seems to have fancied herself as a folk anti-heroine, like Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde.

This witty memoir, which can be read in about an hour, provides an interesting look at an uncommon crime.
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LibraryThing member bostonbibliophile
If you've seen the movie you can more or less skip the memoir but it's interesting if you want to see how true to life the movie was. The movie is a bittersweet delight thanks to the actors; the story as recounted in the book is tawdry and cheap. Israel's tone is matter of fact and even a little defiant; she comes across as largely unsympathetic although her writing is crisp and skillful. So if you're thinking about choosing, I would pick the movie, as the book is a largely unpleasant experience.… (more)
LibraryThing member hemphill
Interesting and at points hilarious, but her voice really pains me--snobby, bitchy, privileged. However, she led a fascinating life and I'm glad I had a chance to see part of it through this book.
LibraryThing member msteketee
I knew of Lee Israel from her writing in the New York Times .. in particular, the Elaine Stritch profile Stritch herself references in her one woman show AT LIBERTY (NY Times June 23, 1968, "Stritch: She Got Raves in 'Private Lives' (And Was Out of Work a Week Later)" [look it up in the NYTimes archives on line .. I did :)] ... Stritch calls Israel "one hell of a writer", and those kudos took me to this article. Israel ends the published profile with this quote (which Stritch paraphrases slightly differently, same effect, in her one woman show): "I think, too, that a lot of directors are afraid of me because, in the words of Gershwin, 'There's a lot of things I don't know, but I do know this,' And I do know the theatre. All I'm' looking for is somebody who knows more than I do. If they're interested, they can call. But I couldn't swing it with someone who knows less, because all I'll do is argue. I won't be able to make any music that way."

Great writer, great subject. And in this current memoir, this great writer turns her lens on herself .. often gingerly outlining the edges of stories (suitors, cats, various apartments, friends who fade and friends who stay around) .. and a dicey, illicit, white collar crime spree Ms. Israel dreams up in the early 1970s. Her actions of forging and repenting, her sweet and self-effacing and intriguing descriptions of her own journey ... aggravate and challenge and entrance me.

I'd love to meet her. And I'm mad at her. Hell, I'm a researcher and I love these same characters whose work she forged. Not sure if i can "forgive" her actions exactly, but hey, who am I? I do love her mind. and my my my, she can write up a dream. Stritch is abso-fucking-lutely right about that.
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LibraryThing member stephaniechase
Israel is incredibly entertaining in this slim memoir -- funny, insightful, and absolutely unapologetic. I recommended this to one of my favorite library patrons, a very discriminating reader, and he enjoyed it so much, he bought some as gifts. Those unfamiliar with the authors whose letters Israel forged will find the story interesting, but it is truly wonderful when you can appreciate her gift.… (more)
LibraryThing member Janzz
I found it not overly interesting. It seemed almost as though she was bragging about what she had done. If it was me I would be wanting to keep it quiet.
LibraryThing member villemezbrown
This sketch of a book amounts to little more than a magazine article about Israel's career as a thief and forger. To fill it out, she includes multiple examples of the fake letters she created, pointing out which bits were hers and which came from the famous people she was aping. She is obviously proud of her work and generally seems unrepentant.

But her fuck 'em attitude and snark kept me reading even as it repelled me. Looking forward to seeing the movie now.
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LibraryThing member yukon92
This book might actually be the rare case where the movie might be better than the book!


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

144 p.; 5.5 inches


1982100338 / 9781982100339
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